Woman jailed in Iran for watching volleyball

Fight for your rights: The fate of Iranian-British Ghoncheh Ghavami remains unclear © PA

A British-Iranian student faces a lengthy prison sentence in Iran, simply for trying to attend a volleyball match. Could her case lead to greater freedoms in the largely conservative country?

Cheering on athletes at sports events is an exhilarating freedom most people take for granted. But when a 25-year-old British-Iranian woman campaigned for that very freedom in Iran, she was arrested and flung in jail. There are reports this week that her ordeal is about to get worse.

Ghoncheh Ghavami, a law graduate, was arrested in June after joining about 20 other women trying to enter a stadium in Tehran to watch the Iranian national volleyball team play Italy. Iran banned women from volleyball games in 2012, extending a long-standing ban on female attendance at football matches, because authorities believe women need protection from male fans.

Ghavami was taken to a maximum-security wing of the capital’s notorious Evin prison, run by the Revolutionary Guard, where she endured 41 days of solitary confinement, a hunger strike, and psychological harassment. She now faces fresh charges of spying and a much longer sentence — as much as six years — if hardliners get their way.

The case is one that reveals the deep divides in Iranian society. Power rests with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and conservative male clerics who enforce a strict Islamic code of behaviour in the country. They worry Western culture will overtake their teachings. Earlier this year, six Iranians were arrested for appearing in a video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Happy’ and sentenced to prison and 91 lashes.

But Iran is also a more modern country than many people realise, and attitudes are changing fast. Many Iranians have welcomed President Hassan Rohani’s attempts to move the country towards moderation by thawing relations with the West and opening the doors for greater prosperity. More than half of the population is under 25, religious fervour is waning and young Iranians are embracing Western freedoms and social media.

In fact, as numerous online campaigns show, many Iranians are outraged over Ghavami's detention, particularly after volleyball’s governing body this week banned Iran from hosting international tournaments.

Play ball

Ghavami’s plight may go unnoticed, as Rohani faces powerful opposition from revolutionary ideologues and has so far remained quiet on her case. He will not undermine his own position by championing human rights, particularly as the West is more concerned with securing a nuclear deal vital for regional stability. Greater freedom is a long way off.

But actions like Ghavami’s and the ‘Happy’ protesters show that the clamour for greater liberty, particularly among the young, is a powerful force to be reckoned with. While Rohani must walk a careful tightrope between reformists and conservatives, it is undeniable that times are changing.

You Decide

  1. Should the West put more pressure on Iran to release Ghavami?
  2. Is securing a nuclear deal more important than human rights?


  1. Design a poster and slogan, either that you would have used to campaign alongside Ghavami to attend sports events in Iran, or to secure her release.
  2. Do some research and write a couple of paragraphs on young people in Iran today.

Some People Say...

“Securing a nuclear deal is more important than individual human rights cases.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Iran is a long way away. How does this affect me?
The fact you may live far away from Iran means you can do more to help than if you lived in the country, as protests there can be suppressed. By understanding the issues, and keeping up pressure, we can make sure Ghavami’s plight does not go unnoticed. In the words of Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, ‘Human rights are universal. Whatever happens in one country relates to other countries as well.’
How worried should I be about Iran’s nuclear capabilities?
Many believe that Iran intends to make a nuclear bomb, although the country has always denied this. Until Rohani’s election last year, relations with the West were very tense. But a more moderate Iran will be a vital ally in the region, particularly with the rise of so-called Islamic State.

Word Watch

National volleyball team
Iran’s volleyball team is one of the best in the world and very popular at home. It finished 6th in this year’s World Championships in Poland and 4th at the World League.
Revolutionary guard
A branch of Iran’s military, intended to protect the country’s Islamic system.
In November last year, Iran agreed to restrict its controversial nuclear programme. In return, the West lifted some of the suffocating economic sanctions that had crippled Iran for years. The deal for Iran was worth over £4 billion.
Social media
One instagram account, ‘Rich Kids of Iran’, created in September on the photo-sharing service attracted almost 100,000 followers. Its contributors said they wanted to show a different image of Iran from the stereotypes in the West, but Iranian authorities later banned it.
An ideologue is someone who very strongly supports and is guided by the ideology of a particular group.

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